Zoë Aston is a psychotherapist, mental health consultant and author. She runs a private practice and consults for some of the best-known wellness and fitness brands. She is the creator of Your Mental Health Workout, which helps people understand how to take care of their mind the same way they would their body. There is a free online guide that gives you the tools to improve your own mental health at www.yourmentalhealthworkout.com and you can find Zoë on Instagram @yourmentalhealthworkout.
In this piece, she offers her thoughts on depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), light therapy and how to look after our mental health during what might be a pretty difficult winter.
As we go into winter this year, we have the added stresses of all that we have lost, further Covid-19 restrictions, threats to our physical and mental health and a whole load of uncertainty for what is to come. It is going to be a tricky one and mental health has got to be top of our priorities. As a therapist and mental health consultant I aim to give people access to as much information as possible surrounding good mental health hygiene and I am pleased to share with you the benefits of light therapy and sleep hygiene as a part of maintaining the most powerful muscle in your body, your mind.
I have benefited hugely from using Lumie Bodyclock over a number of years. Long before I was working from home, it was my favourite thing to go to sleep with and wake up to. I use the sunset feature as I am reading and falling asleep and the sunrise alarm to wake me up naturally. I have noticed that using an alarm that ‘rings’ to wake me up, such as my iPhone alarm, shocks my body into ‘wake mode’ and seriously impacts my mentality throughout the day. It actually does my mental health harm. This is because it spikes my cortisol first thing in the morning, when it is at its highest already, and means my day begins in a stress response which sets me up to feel anxious and fatigued later on. Our minds seek balance, and for me, waking up with the sunrise feature on the Lumie Bodyclock has has made this possible.
I have also found that many of my clients who are suffering with heightened levels of anxiety and depression at the moment have benefited from light therapy and focusing on a consistent sleep hygiene routine, especially while working from home. Even those who do not identify with having depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) find that consistent light therapy supports good mental health hygiene.
Depression and SAD come in a number forms and the first thing I always say about depression is that it is very human to feel a bit low, sad, moody, irritated and blue some of the time, this does not mean you are depressed. In fact it probably indicates that you are having a full range of emotional experiences, which is considered psychologically healthy. Let’s face it, we’ve all got reasons to feel low at the moment. However, if your low mood is affecting your life more than 50% of the time you might be dealing with what we commonly call depression and if this tends to happen over the winter months it is a type of reactive depression known as SAD.
Anyone can have depression, it doesn’t matter how psychologically ‘tough’ or ‘strong’ you think you are. It doesn’t matter what race, gender, culture or economic background you come from, mental health declines in the form of depression can impact us all and they are particularly rife at the moment.
Due to the circumstances of 2020 when our lives have changed beyond recognition, many of us have been left with a backlog of difficult feelings that we are not used to or do not know what to do with. It is highly likely that we will see the negative effects of 2020 on our mental health coming to the surface during the winter months when it gets colder and daylight gets shorter. This is why it is so important that we help ourselves by using preventive measures like light therapy.
Therapeutic effects of Lumie
Light therapy works in a number of ways and, used regularly, has therapeutic benefits that I have promoted to my clients over the years. I myself consider it essential that I have exposure to bright light or natural sunlight during my mornings. During the summer it is easy, I go for a run or a walk or sit in my garden for at least 30 minutes each morning. Then, as the winter months set in I have to find other ways and the only substitute that has ever worked is a dedicated light box used in conjunction with my Lumie Bodyclock. To be clear, these are two different forms of light therapy. I use Bodyclock light to keep my sleep hygiene consistent and I would also use it if I was relaxing and reading in my bedroom. The light box is effective while I am working, cooking, and doing things like getting dressed in the morning that need a more productive energy.
Exposure to bright light helps our mood by triggering a serotonin reaction in the mind which is a mood-boosting neurotransmitter. Serotonin promotes pleasure. In fact, the most commonly prescribed type of antidepressant is called an SSRI which stands for Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor. These medications work by pumping more serotonin into your brain and demobilising the re-uptake process so that the serotonin hangs around for longer. Serotonin is released naturally when you use therapeutic lights consistently, enabling you to change mood, perspective and generally feel happier. It is my experience that use of light therapy along with all the other ‘workouts’ I do for my mental health has a healing effect comparative to being on anti-depressants, as I was earlier in my life.
Light therapy also works on a slightly deeper level, because it is an active step you take towards looking after your wellbeing. Introducing light therapy into your routine helps you to connect or reconnect with yourself by giving yourself the implicit and explicit messaging that you care about yourself because you are doing something to help yourself. These internal messages improve your self-esteem and help you to like yourself. This leaves you feeling happier and more capable, resulting in an improvement in your quality of life.
This last point is particularly relevant at the moment because many of the external opportunities we usually use to gain validation have not been available during lockdown, for example seeing friends and family and people who love us, going in to the office and getting an in person ‘well-done’ from someone you respect or your workout community hang outs. If you are working from home, or have had to isolate alone, I am sure you will have experienced a rise in that critical voice in your mind and a difficulty keeping your self-esteem where you need it. Taking preventative action around your emotional, psychological and physical health is something we must all do.
Three tips on how to look after your mental health during the winter months
1. Decide on your non-negotiable this winter.
For example some of mine are:
- Getting natural sunlight or light therapy for a minimum of 30 minutes per day.
Doing movement and exercise each day i.e. yoga for 30 minutes, a run for 45 minutes.
Having a gratitude practice before I fall asleep i.e. saying to myself 3 (or more) things I’m grateful for in my life.
2. Keep a journal based on your feelings.
Whilst you use your light box in the mornings or maybe while your Lumie is on sunset mode in the evening, write about your feelings from that day. This helps you identify emotional patterns and arms you with knowledge about how to look after your feelings. You can’t get rid of the feelings you are having but you can learn to work with them.
3. Set up a relaxing sleep hygiene routine.
For example mine goes something like this:
2pm onwards, no caffeine AT ALL!
8pm onwards, no laptops, emails or work related items. I sometimes have a hot shower or bath to help myself relax into the evening.
8:30pm, I keep bright lights to a minimum at home.
9pm soothing hot drink, usually mint tea!
10:30pm no screens at all, Lumie on sunset mode and read for 15-30 minute
11pm short breathing meditation and I am off to sleep for the next eight hours.
Sign up to Zoë's mailing list at www.yourmentalhealthworkout.com to receive a mental health workout in your inbox to manage stress this winter.